Thank God it has come and gone. The anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall threatens to become a regular ritual celebrating the triumph of capitalism and the bankruptcy of socialism. The ruling ideology needs landmarks and symbols to reassure that capitalism is both good and enduring to those barred by an invisible wall from entering the elite club of wealth and power. The 1989 opening of the barrier between East and West Berlin serves as such a symbol and, accordingly, is celebrated with much acclaim by the elites and their media lapdogs. They are confident that the louder and more extravagantly they celebrate, the more the rest of us will buy the old Cold War myths of socialist slavery and capitalist freedom. Tragically, many buy it.
But thank God there are some out there who expose the myths, though they lack the megaphone to pierce the bleating of the corporate media. I cannot praise enough the recent, brilliant postings by Stephen Gowans. The first (1) corrects the history and tallies the accomplishments of the departed German Democratic Republic. And the second (2) uses recent polling results to reveal the views that count the most: the folks who actually lived, worked, raised families and experienced the realities of Eastern European socialism. Their views are scorned and dismissed by our public pontificators in favor of the “dissidents” – most of whom weigh their own privileged opportunities that would be bestowed in a capitalist society over any consideration of the common good. The citizens' concerns are belittled as insignificant before the higher values of unlimited travel, intellectual license, and shallow “success” as defined by Western vulgarians.
Significantly, the citizens of former socialist countries value security, health care, employment, education, cultural engagement and the other basics that socialism guaranteed over the abstract right to travel unrestrained from Kharkov to Paris, especially when they see no prospects of ever attaining the means to exercise that right. The Ivy League graduates in business suits that populate urban condos and suburban mansions scoff at their concerns, ridiculing them as unsophisticated and trivial. Of course they’re trivial to those privileged by wealth and power to have no need for them!
It is shameful to see the political elites scurry to Berlin, along with the media pack, to toast the demise of a system that delivered more social good with more justice and humanity than the system that replaced it. It is just my opinion, of course, but the Pew and GlobeScan polls cited by Gowans, show that many, if not most, of the citizens of Eastern Europe – armed with the experience of both systems – agree with me.
Hypocrisy abounds, especially in the US. Our fearless media has earned a deserved reputation of finding some credibility in every pronouncement emanating from a corporate or government source. Conversely, they have succeeded in burying their heads deeply in the sand to avoid any inconvenient truth like the sentiments of Eastern Europeans. After all, what do they know about the relative merits of capitalism and socialism when compared with Merkel, Brown or Obama? Class-based journalism reigns.
Today’s news brings the revelation that 49 million US citizens experienced hunger – what the Bureau of Euphemism calls “food insecurity” - in 2008, a rise of 13% over 2007. With one out four children knowing hunger last year, it might be worthy of note that even the poorest socialist country succeeded in eliminating hunger within a decade. But what is the fate of millions of the hungry or unemployed when compared to the complaints of a poet in Cuba, a feudal lord in Tibet, or a businessman in Venezuela? The former remain voiceless while the latter command the big media stage.
But it’s not just the media that carries the water for a system that leaves bodies strewn across the landscape from hunger, war, lack of health care and neglect; there are also those in the lofty reaches of academe who willingly embrace the task of legitimizing capitalism, its culture, and its history. They are not merely anticommunist professors, but professors of anticommunism. To excel at this task, one has to be willing to not only condemn Communism, but to swear that there was actually nothing – not the tiniest value or virtue- in the movement or its instantiation in power.
Arguably, the dean of this “discipline” was the late Sir Isaiah Berlin, an academic who earned knighthood for his services to the capitalist state. While his philosophical work was both meager and slight, his dogged disparaging of Communism attained for him fame and veneration.
Since his demise, others have scrambled for his mantle. A strong contender for this dubious distinction is the current Professor of European Studies and Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at St. Antony’s College, Oxford and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institute, Timothy Garton Ash. From his early career roaming around Eastern Europe, to his later career as a journalist, to his current academic station, Ash has unswervingly served the cause of capitalism (he would, of course, recoil from this description, preferring “liberal democracy”) and demonized socialism. In this regard, he is a worthy successor to Berlin, but apparently not yet worthy of knighthood since he has only earned a lesser chivalric title, CMG (Companion, The Most Distinguished order of St. Michael’s and St. George). This title is generally awarded to members of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (James Bond got one!) and poses an interesting juxtaposition with his academic stature.
Ash has peddled anticommunism for many, many years, often choosing the equally rabid anticommunist The New York Review of Books as his soapbox. In the December 3, 2009 addition, he offers a curious argument for establishing the so-called Velvet Revolution in 1989 Czechoslovakia as the historic template for future social change: “The hypothesis is that 1989 established a new model of nonviolent revolution that now often supplants, or at least competes with, the older, violent model we associate with 1789”. Thus, VR, as he calls the new model, explains the many “color” revolutions that have befallen Eastern European and Middle Eastern countries, social movements that coincide almost perfectly with foreign policy goals of the US and Western European powers. To deflect anyone suspicious of this coincidence, he stretches to include South Africa, Chile, and Portugal in this model, an inclusion that those familiar with these prolonged, militant, and left-led “old school” revolutions will find laughable.
With equal elasticity, Ash struggles to find some other content (other than serving imperial interests!) to these new breed “revolutions”, conceding and quoting Francois Furet that the 1989 changes in Eastern Europe stirred “not a single new idea.” Rather, they were a “turning of the wheel back to a real or imaginary better past”. Certainly most practitioners of Ash’s discipline would call this wheel-turning to the past “counter-revolution”, a word that Ash assiduously avoids. And in the end, he relents that “[the] “new idea” is the form of revolutionary change itself, not the content of its ideological aspirations”.
But if they have no content to inspire action, what drives these social movements? Many of us who have studied the heralded protests in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Central and South America (these go unmentioned by Ash – perhaps, because they were so transparently coups posing as popular risings) have concluded that they had a social base of privileged elites with decisive help from external agents. Herds of innocuous sounding NGOs have been manufactured to do the work formerly exclusive to foreign intelligence agencies. One cannot help noting the presence of abundant resources – technological, material, and agitational – in the media accounts of the demonstrations and rallies in these otherwise economically poorer countries. Ample evidence exists demonstrating the elaborate training and preparation offered by well-funded NGOs.
Dutifully, Ash scoffs at this explanation: “These are not Western plots, as authoritarian rulers from Russia to China to Iran now claim – supported in their paranoia by a few conspiracy-minded Western observers”. One wonders if Ash had his fingers crossed when he wrote this!
But he goes on: “To be sure, there is often Western involvement, some of it public, some covert, but in no single case can one possibly claim that it has been decisive” [my italics]. And several column inches later, in chiding the Indian government for remaining neutral in regard to turmoil in neighboring countries, Ash argues a different conclusion: “Or will non-Western democracies in time warm to the … enterprise of helping people in less free countries to help themselves? The answer they give may be decisive for the future of VR” [my italics]. Now those of us without Ash’s impressive credentials my find this to be contradictory; on one hand, external intervention has never been decisive, on the other, it may well be the decisive factor in future uprisings. Are we to believe that Western powers, with far more resources and a history of imperial intervention, showed great restraint in Ash’s Velvet-like revolutions, offering non-decisive aid when Western foreign policy goals were clearly within reach? Are we to believe, on the other hand, that the Indian government, less inclined to intervention and less well endowed, is to be faulted by not playing a decisive role in toppling governments not favored by Ash?
When you’ve abandoned any pretense of respecting self-determination, it’s easy to have it both ways.
Ash and the media lapdogs undermine not only their own credibility, but the credibility of their respective professions that pretend to be scholarly and unbiased. Their fawning submission to power and wealth stands in sharp contrast to the work of independent, but avowedly partisan writers like Stephen Gowans.